"I never know whether I am the builder or the architect. The role shifts all the time. But what I have come to conclude is that the script is the muse. For producer, director, actor, director of photography and designer, it is the point of inspiration that everyone must think of as their own." - Abi Morgan, Screenwriters' Lecture Series 2012
Now in their fifth year, the International Screenwriters' Lectures, hosted jointly by BAFTA and the BFI, have cemented their worldwide reputation as the most prestigious forum for celebrating the peculiar genius of screenwriting.
Supported by the JJ Charitable Trust, the lectures have become the sine qua non for all those with the ambition and curiosity to understand filmmaking in its fullest expression. For five years, BAFTA and the BFI have hosted lectures by an awe-inspiring array of writers, including Charlie Kaufman, David Hare, Abi Morgan, Paul Laverty, Guillermo Arriaga, Richard Curtis, Peter Straughan, Christopher Hampton, Brian Helgeland, John Logan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Simon Beaufoy, David S. Goyer, Susannah Grant , Tony Gilroy and Peter Morgan. Between them, these writers have scripted some of the most garlanded and successful films of all time. They are, without doubt, among the greatest exponents of screenwriting in the world and their talent is worthy of celebration.
Celebration was always the pulse that drove us, in setting up this series. The intention was that, through a kind of osmotic camaraderie, the audience would be inspired and informed in equal measure. Clearly we wanted to raise awareness of what screenwriting actually entails, but not through the traditional forum of the workshop, in which an industry 'expert' stands on stage and pretends that everybody can be a screenwriter if only they follow the phenomenally complex and quasi-scientific rules set out in their recently published book entitled HOW TO BECAME A PHENOMENALLY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITER. Our starting point was that screenwriting is an art-form in which it is very difficult to excel. Doubly so because, quite apart from the difficulty of creating a sustained narrative, the screenwriter's relationship to the film's finished form is necessarily tangential. And yet (for all that visible-invisibility) screenwriting is no less an art than that of the novelist or playwright.
It's a curious fact that in almost all fictional accounts, screenwriters are portrayed as bereft, irony-soaked drunks, dreaming of the sex they will never have: the embittered bridesmaids, never the bride. Like all reductive paradigms, there is some delicious truth and wild exaggeration in this account. Crucially, it misses the joy of screenwriting. It forgets the fierce acuity (applied mostly in private) and it presumes upon a sense of collective inferiority that deliberately misunderstands a screenwriter's subtle dance with mogul-egos. It does so, I suspect, because we have an aversion to complexity, and screenwriting is complex. As I've said, it engages the same authorial talents as other creative writing, yet it does so in an intricate relationship with collaborators as various/pompous/brilliant/talentless as financiers, executives, producers, directors, movie stars and editors. All the above (and more) have a say in the final shape, tone and pace of a completed film. However, without the screenwriter... without their 'something out of nothing'... all narrative filmmaking would fall apart under the weight of its own scale and ambition. For the truth (often overlooked by directors desperate for creative ownership commensurate with their exhausting labours) is that everyone who comes after the screenwriter is interpreting a document (some 120 pages in length) that already contains all the detail of time, place and action. Everything is there: the themes, the locations, the characters, the dialogue, the tone and pace. The screenplay is the structured narrative. Come what may (and it will) the film you sit over in the edit will be the same film you signed-off on at the final draft of the screenplay. You can order a furiously plangent, scene-saving film score (composers are, famously, the most sacked and re-hired people in the industry), you can re-shoot (after re-writes) a scene that explains why you cut the first 10 pages, you can hire another editor (they often do), but you can never disguise the umbilical thread that leads inexorably back to the written word. Filmmaking will always spring from a composed narrative, whether notes on a page or a fully fledged screenplay.
In hosting these lectures, what has given me most satisfaction is witnessing the integrity of world-renowned screenwriters talking, without embarrassment, about the detail of their art: the struggle to nuance each character's journey, to calibrate the overall structure, to sustain narrative traction, to find the right tone and pace, to sharpen the opening and to end without repeating narrative tropes. Post-hoc, much of this work will have been (rightly) subsumed into the finished film. But the fact of its existence, like the many details in a symphony that we cannot hope to hear note-for-note, will augment our experience of the film beyond measure. This is what screenwriters do. And, sure, much of their work is driven by commercial imperatives. Many of them will be sacked, re-hired and re-written. That is in the nature of an industrial-scale enterprise with high financial risk attached. But, in truth, when alone with the written word (whether re-writing somebody else's script, adapting a novel or creating an original screenplay) the best screenwriters own the work with the same pride of purpose as they would their biography. And in a way, that's true. For in applying themselves with creative integrity to whatever the task is that they've been assigned, they leave something of themselves behind.
Revealingly, since the series was set up in 2010, old creative boundaries have started to break down. More screenwriters are migrating to television, where their talents are given greater authorial weight. Video games are impacting the writing of genre movies. More screenwriters are directing as their confidence grows, along with an awareness that directing is the logical extension of what screenwriters already do. With this in mind, the 2014 series celebrates three glorious multi-hyphenates in the Columbia Professor, ex-studio executive and screenwriter James Schamus, the multi-Oscar and BAFTA winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson and Steven Knight, the world-renowned creator of television dramas, screenplays and, more recently, the writer and director of the hit film Locke. With their voices, the series seeks to address the more fluid relationship between narrative storytelling and its component expressions.
Equally important to the success of the lecture series has been its significance as a resource. Huge creative energy has gone into filming each event, thereby ensuring that public and professionals have access, via BAFTA's Guru website, to every single event from 2010 up to now. For those who cannot attend the lectures, I strongly recommend they visit BAFTA's Guru website. Listen to one of these inspiring lectures and you will want to listen to many more. Enjoy!
BAFTA-winning screenwriter Jeremy Brock programmes the annual BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters' Lecture Series, which this year hosts James Schamus (Thursday 18 September), Emma Thompson (Sunday 20 September) and Steven Knight (Monday 29 September). The 2014 lecture series starts at the BFI Southbank in London on Thursday. To view previous lectures, visit the BAFTA Guru website.
The views expressed are the author's own.